Saturday, 18 March 2017

End Game

Arsene Wenger is clearly the product of another era, specifically that of the super-manager who moulds a club identity. A peculiarity of history is that this era opened at Arsenal under Herbert Chapman in the 1930s and looks likely to close at the same club. There are no other managers of this type in top-flight football today, and even those who started in this mode, such as Fabio Capello at Milan or Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, have accommodated themselves to the role of itinerant technician. The break between old and new styles reflects the impact of TV money around the millennium. New club owners since then, whether motivated by share-value or glory, have seen coaches as simply specialist employees, brought in for a relatively short term to impose a new tactical formation, with less involvement in player acquisition and often no involvement in the wider management of the club, such as the youth policy or facilities. In contrast, Wenger is a micro-manager whose influence is felt in every nook and cranny. He could not expect a similar scope at any other top club, so you can understand why he might be reluctant to leave.

The pressure for quick results, given the short tenure of managers, has placed a premium on off-the-shelf structures and drills with the result that top teams are increasingly similar, their players interchangeable and their training standardised. Paradoxically, the more modular nature of the modern coaching and playing staff has raised the value of managers. Where once clubs would look to a marquee signing to act as a catalyst on the pitch, today they are more likely to look to a coach to effect transformative change, but on the training pitch rather than through the replenishment of the squad. The downside to this is vulnerability. Should the change not occur, or should the effects wear off (e.g. at Leicester City), the coach can expect to be quickly sacked. In other words, a modern coach must either find a reliably portable scheme or reinvent himself every few years. This has led to greater stress on managers, hence both the more obvious emotionalism (see Jurgen Klopp) and burn-out (see Luis Enrique). As short tenures and volatility have become the norm, the media have routinely anticipated rifts and departures, creating an environment that is increasingly hostile to an atypical manager like Wenger.

A manager like Jose Mourinho is a hybrid, inheriting the attitude of the super-manager but exhibiting the brief tenures, emphasis on intense drills and claustrophobic structures of the new coaching style. The tension between his desire for greater domination and the constraints of the modern club leads to his control-freakery being diverted towards the media and officials. It also leads to him falling-out with players and the club hierarchy with predictable regularity. His personal animosity towards Wenger seems to owe something to his resentment at not having himself become a super-manager. Though some Arsenal fans have called for Wenger's departure, the overall loyalty of supporters towards the manager, despite repeated frustrations over the last decade, is telling. Compare and contrast the "You're not special any more" chant of Chelsea fans to Mourinho during the recent FA Cup quarter-final against Man Utd. However Wenger departs, I suspect he would always receive a warm welcome should he return to the Emirates Stadium as an opposition manager.

Where once football jargon focused on "channels" and "POMO", i.e. maximising chances, it's now more about "turnovers" and "transitions", i.e. limiting uncertain periods of play. This more controlling approach, reinforced by biometrics and data analytics, has led to greater pressure on players to stick to rigid structures and set-plays. Though we still praise the "game-changers" for moments of skill and vision, the reality is that much of the game is geared to limiting their opportunities, hence the eclipse of both the traditional number 9 and the number 10. In persisting with Giroud and Ozil, the one relatively static and the other given freedom to roam, Wenger is clearly adhering to a template that owed it origins to the great French national sides of the early 1980s when he was starting his managerial career at Cannes and Nancy. That isn't a bad template - most "new" formations are just variations on old themes (e.g. Barcelona's reinvention of Dutch total football) - but it is one that modern teams find it easier to counter, essentially by compressing play and not allowing the spaces that Michel Platini famously exploited to open up.

For most of the 1990s, Arsenal were essentially a counter-attacking team. Under George Graham, this meant a solid defence, a functional midfield and quick balls to fast strikers such as Ian Wright. Wenger preserved most of this structure but added craft to the midfield and varied the points of attack, with players such as Pires and Ljungberg augmenting Bergkamp and Henry. The last decade has seen the emergence of the caricature Arsenal, a team locked into a syndrome of excessive passing on the edge of the opposition's penalty area, largely because opponents have become better drilled and are more confident in defending deep. Wenger's attempts to counter this - usually by playing more mobile false strikers in the middle, such as van Persie or Sanchez - have been successful, hence Arsenal have usually been a high-scoring team in most seasons, but too often games have been drawn or lost because of weaknesses at the back. We still need a better goalkeeper - Cech has started his inevitable decline - and we need to be better at covering for our full-backs when they push forward, hence the exploratory move towards a midfield three. We also need to be better at defending crosses.

Wenger's ethos centres on getting players to maximise what they are best at, which can mean first discovering what that is by challenging assumptions - e.g. converting Thierry Henry from a winger to a striker or Lauren from a midfielder to a full-back. This assumes the luxury of time and experimentation, which is not something modern managers have, hence there are few others who have done likewise in recent years. He doesn't emphasise drills or positioning (though equally he doesn't neglect them altogether, as some critics maintain), preferring to encourage the players' adaptability. This can bear fruit by making Arsenal unpredictable, but it can also prove an Achilles heel when the team fail to adapt to changing circumstances on the pitch because they lack a default. Though some have talked of Arsenal lacking a plan B in attack, what they've actually lacked is a plan B in defence, which has led to occasional thumpings. We have lost the knack of nicking a goal and closing down a game.

Arsenal clearly need a change and it is hard to believe it won't come (or at least be announced) at the end of this season. Following the recent bad run of form (up to today's defeat at West Brom), finishing in the top four looks to be at serious risk, not because of the gap in points (we've made up worse before) but because of the evident lack of confidence within the squad, which is leading to a lack of effort and imagination on the pitch. In the past, injuries and decisions going against us have helped instil determination and even obduracy over the final third. Now, they tend to depress spirits and encourage lassitude. Too many players seem to wish the season was over, which suggests that our usual late push for the glory of Champions' League qualification and finishing above Spurs may be beyond us for once. An increasing number of fans beyond the vocal minority seem to have decided that a temporary failure to achieve those two perennial objectives would be an acceptable price to pay if it leads to managerial change.

It is worth emphasising that finishing fifth (or worse) and getting to an FA Cup semi-final (at least) is hardly embarrassing in such a competitive league. Our usual exit at the last-16 stage of the Champions' League was predictable, but I think that our rotten luck in the competition since 2006 has led to a self-fulfilling fatalism among too many of the players and fans. Leicester City's contrasting good fortune in the competition, while they've simultaneously declined in the league, has simply rubbed this in. Arsenal could do with a break from Europe, though I imagine we'll still qualify for the Europa League if we miss out on a top-four place, which means the dubious pleasure of Thursday night games. Some fans will optimistically talk about winning a new competition, but the real value will simply be to change habits and expectations. Personally I'd opt to skip Europe altogether, if that were possible, simply to clear our heads. As Leicester and Chelsea have shown in successive seasons, a focus on the Premier League is easier to achieve without the distraction of the Champion's League.

There is a sense of an era coming to a close, but an era that started long before "Arsene Who?" flew in from Japan. Wenger has become the last of the super-managers not because of his successes or relative youth, but because of the willingness of "Silent" Stan Kroenke to be a sleeping partner. It is the businessman Wenger, as much as the football manager, who built the modern Arsenal. No doubt there will be crocodile tears among some pundits, suggesting that Wenger's legacy has somehow been tarnished by staying on too long and only winning the FA Cup in recent years. Twice. But this ignores that Wenger's legacy is the Emirates Stadium and a club that can justifiably claim to be in the global top 10, despite the disappointments in the league and in Europe. I suspect his post-Arsenal future (he won't retire) will be as a general manager, rather than a coach, possibly at PSG, or perhaps as a national manager with a broad remit, probably for France. I suspect he struggles to imagine what Arsenal would be like without him, but he's going to have to find out eventually, along with the rest of us.


  1. Ben Philliskirk18 March 2017 at 17:22

    "even those who started in this mode, such as Fabio Capello at Milan or Pep Guardiola at Barcelona"

    I'm not sure that Capello and Guardiola count either really. Capello certainly introduced a more noticeably defensive mindset at Milan, but he essentially started from a position of strength left by Sacchi. Guardiola's particular style wasn't a great deal different from that of Rijkaard, and his success owed much to the combination of a rare vein of home grown talent, the fortunate acquisition of the world's best footballer, and bags of cash. If anything it was Cruyff that first linked frequent on-field success with Barcelona's potential as a 'super-club'. The 'super-manager' model you describe has been rarer on the continent with the traditional division of labour between club management and coaching, and Wenger is clearly something of an outlier now with the amount of latitude he has been given by owners and, up until now, with fans, especially as short-termism is the norm even at lower levels.

    "There are no other managers of this type in top-flight football today"

    A small club, I know, but still top-flight - Eddie Howe?

    1. You're right that the shift on the continent happened some decades ago. My point was that Capello and Guardiola were the last two who looked, for a short while at least, like they might reverse the trend. They didn't.

      I doubt Eddie Howe is a realistic prospect. Arsenal will either hire in an experienced coach, in the mould of Ancelotti or Allegri, or they'll go for an ex-player with perhaps Wenger promoted upstairs.

      I think what happens next is difficult to predict because the club hierarchy haven't indicated any preference beyond more Wenger, though the suspicion is that financial caution will bias them towards the ex-player route. Wenger is probably sensitive to the risks this would entail, so his view may well prove decisive.

  2. Ben Philliskirk18 March 2017 at 19:22

    I wasn't suggesting Eddie Howe as a successor as much as, slightly mischievously, putting him forward as a present-day 'super-manager' who has put his mark on a club to the extent of changing their identity.

    The disturbing thing for you might be that 'super-managers' often leave a somewhat poisoned legacy. One of the few successful transitions would be Shankly at Liverpool, and the departure of managers like Busby, Nicholson, Revie, Robson, Clough and Ferguson all led to swift declines, albeit not necessarily irreversible.

    1. Shankly's departure wasn't entirely smooth: he used to turn up at Melwood afterwards and interfere in the training. Paisley eventually had to ask him to leave.

      As for Eddie Howe, a super-manager requires a large club - i.e. big fish, big pond. Howe might prove to be another Dario Gradi or Guy Roux at Bournemouth, but that's not the same thing.

    2. Ben Philliskirk18 March 2017 at 20:33

      I meant that the post-Shankly transition was successful for Liverpool in terms of results, as well as the fact that it was his staff that presided over the club for the next ten years (Roy Evans even managing the club in the late 1990s).

      As I said, I was being a bit mischievous suggesting Howe. That said, I would have thought that Revie and Clough would be archetypal 'super-managers' at Leeds and Forest, but I'm not sure they would fit in to your criteria.

    3. I'd say yes to Revie and Clough, simply because they made modest clubs big, and would even make the case for the latter as double-super: Derby and Forest

    4. Ben Philliskirk18 March 2017 at 20:59

      I'm not entirely sure about Clough at Derby because he wasn't there as long and he 'only' won the one title. Probably a 'nearly-super' there, like Howard Kendall and Graham Taylor....

  3. Herbie Kills Children29 March 2017 at 17:19

    Being a Forest fan I can aboslutely confirm that Clough fell into the super manager class, the club was very much moulded in his image. The problem at deby was that the chairman didn't like the idea of the super manager. But believe me it was their loss.

    On the pitch Clough created a very definite playing style, and a very particular formation. Players who didn't shape up were quickly shipped out.

    Guardiola was brought up in maybe the ultimate super coaching system, in that every level of the club, from junior to first team played the same way, which as far back as I can remember was pass pass pass and pass again. Guardiola himself being a brilliant exponent of that. So Guardiola's background is in a super coaching environment.

    The fact he isn't so much now says more about the clubs than the individual managers and says more about the way football has developed.

    Mourihno more than Guardiola to my mind is of the modern type, he leaves no legacy behind when he is gone. I suspect Guardiola still retains the Barcelona ethos but the reality is outside Barcelona the world is different.

    But forget the super manager, Cruyff built the super coaching system. A real super manager leaves a lasting legacy, on that score I can only think of Cruyff falling into that category.